EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — What is the price of leadership?
It’s a question Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman has likely been asking himself over the past month since Minnesota’s season ended in the first round of the playoffs.
Spielman tried to demonstrate just how tough those decisions can become when he gathered with reporters in January, just after the Vikings’ season ended with a 10-6 record and a surprise run to the playoffs. Naming one reporter as an example, Spielman said, “(He) may be a great leader and a locker room guy, but to pay him $10 million a year to go out and play linebacker for us, even though he may be a great guy in the locker room, that’s kind of extreme.”
And that is what Spielman is dealing with right now.
Even before the Percy Harvin situation took on added life this week, Minnesota already had a laundry list of items to consider before free agency begins in March.
The Vikings would like to re-sign some key free agents such as right tackle Phil Loadholt and fullback Jerome Felton. The draft, again, will be important for a young team looking to develop sustained success. Add in the reported issues with Harvin, and the need to either sign him to a long-term contract, trade him before he enters the final season of his rookie deal or face an ugly holdout, and Spielman has a busy month ahead of him.
As Spielman faces those tasks, an underlying theme for the Vikings is the status of its defense. Minnesota was the seventh-youngest team in the NFL last year, but its defense is aging and costly. With Spielman focused on keeping his team young, he’s likely looking at a defense that is anything but, at least when it comes to the key components.
Five of the team’s top six salaries go to defensive players. Of players currently signed for 2013, the defense has five of the team’s seven players who will be at least 30 years old when the season begins. Yet those players are considered important leaders for the Vikings.
Cornerback Antoine Winfield proved his importance in 2012 after missing much of the previous year. Winfield, who will be 36 when the 2013 season starts, has one year remaining on his contract and is due $7.25 million after racking up 109 tackles, 1.5 sacks, three interceptions last season.
“He’s defied the odds,” Spielman said. “There are guys that come through that somehow defy the odds. I have a study there on saying cornerbacks at ‘X’ age aren’t going to be able to perform to their same level. But he’s been an exception to that rule.”
The longest-tenured Vikings player is defensive tackle Kevin Williams, who just finished his 10th season with the team. Williams is still a solid veteran in the middle of the defensive line, but he doesn’t make the every-game impact he once did. Williams, who will be 33 when next season begins, has two years remaining on contract at $7 million per season.
“The intangibles in this is a big deal when you’re trying to get the locker room the way you want it, and both Antoine and Kevin are guys who’ve achieved a lot of success in our league, a lot of success,” coach Leslie Frazier said at his season-ending press conference. “There’s no question about it; would love to have those guys on our team going forward. That’s something that we’re going to talk about when we have our personnel meetings with Rick and the personnel department, and just talk about their fit going forward.”
Defensive end Jared Allen is one year removed from being the runner-up in Defensive Player of the Year voting. Playing through a shoulder injury, Allen still led the team last season with 12 sacks. But Allen, who will be 31 when the season starts, carries a $17.06 million cap number. Even linebacker Chad Greenway ($8.7 million cap number) and defensive end Brian Robison ($6.67 million) will be 30 years old next season.
“There’s a lot of value to that leadership and a lot of value to the character,” Spielman said. “And again, when you go through the whole process and start putting the pieces together, are there ways to keep them there? Should we keep them there? Do we try to renegotiate? Do you let them play out their deal? So there are a lot of different ways, and those are the decisions that we are going to have to make. But you still have to go out there and perform and play.”